James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘negative advertising’

On-the-mark election predictions, and why Obama won

Posted by James McPherson on November 5, 2008

Back in August, when the national polls had the presidential race as close as it got (Zogby gave John McCain the lead), I predicted that in spite of minor irritations offered by GOP mudslinging and PUMAs (who now are noteworthy only because they’re among the few people in America who have ended up on the wrong side in three consecutive presidential elections), Barack Obama would win by a substantial margin: “by the widest margin seen since at least Bill Clinton’s 379-159 victory over Bob Dole in 1996, and maybe since Ronald Reagan slaughtered Walter ‘I-won-my-home-state-of-Minnesota-and-the District-of Columbia’ Mondale 525-13 in 1984.”

With 26 electoral votes (Indiana and North Carolina) still undecided at this point, Obama now has 349 wrapped up, and as CNN notes, has “redrawn the electoral map.” The redrawing, by the way, is something I suggested would be important in my recent book (in which I also suggested that Obama might do well because of similarities to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan): “The question also remains whether any Democrat from outside the South can win the White House. If so, the party’s next-best option might seem to be still in the Sunbelt region but farther west. A logical choice might be a governor from a state such as Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California, or even Colorado.”

New Mexico and Colorado went Democratic in this election (as California long has), but I was somewhat surprised that a candidate from the Midwest–though one that managed to draw a heavy Hispanic vote–was the one who turned those states from red to blue. The Midwestern connection also helped Obama win the traditionally red state of Indiana.

More surprising to me was the popular vote margin, with Obama getting 52 percent of the tally at this point. Electoral votes are what count, of course, but a candidate who gets a majority  of the popular vote (something Bill Clinton didn’t do with either of his victories, nor did George W. Bush in 2000) can argue that he has more of a mandate for change. Combined with a heavily Democratic Congress and a nationwide eagerness for change, Obama might actually be able to accomplish some goals.

Perhaps. But I also recognize that Obama is a pragmatic politician, and that perhaps the Democrats have learned from the Republican excesses of 2000-2006. As a result, my fear is that Obama and Congressional Dems will govern so cautiously for the next two years that they keep a majority in 2010–and so cautiously that, because not enough progress will have been achieved, they lose that majority and perhaps the presidency in 2012.

As for the election, some people blame McCain’s margin of defeat on the failing economy, and there’s some truth to that. But Americans realized they had serious economic problems even before the “collapse” of a few weeks ago, and if the economy hadn’t taken center stage, I’m convinced that the fact that the Iraqis want us out of Iraq would have numbed the Iraq War surge argument that McCain kept trying to push.

Some blame the McCain campaign for being too negative, or not negative enough, but he was in a tough spot. Trailing candidates most need to bring down their opponents through negative ads, and Republicans have used those ads to help depress turnout in the past. But in times of trouble the voters like optimists–like Obama, and like Reagan and Clinton before him.

Some blame Sarah Palin, who was badly misused by her GOP handlers and who proved to be at least as big a hindrance as a help. But the fact is that she gave McCain a serious boost when he needed it most (why I and some others recommended her selection before most people had ever heard of her). She probably kept the race from getting away from McCain earlier than it did.

I suspect that we haven’t heard the last of Palin, though I’m not as optimistic as some about her future chances. For one thing, this election seemed to prove that negative campaigning–one of the major jobs of a vice presidential candidate–by a woman is viewed as less acceptable than the same language coming from a man. It’s an old story for strong women: Men are viewed as forceful, while women who do the same thing are viewed as bitchy. Ironically, a woman might have better luck at the top of the ticket than as the VP nominee.

In fact, however, the biggest reasons for the Obama landslide were the incredible 50-state campaign strategy put together by Obama and the oft-maligned Howard Dean, the campaign’s use of the Internet for organizing events and fundraising, and the fact that real problems–problems created and compounded largely by the Bush administration and its Congressional lackeys–made this a year in which Republicans were almost guaranteed to lose.

McCain might have been the only Republican with a chance to win this year, and conditions would have had to be nearly perfect for him to do so. On the plus side, McCain got his Bob Dole moment in the sun (let’s hope he spares us from commercials for erectile dysfunction and Pepsi). It is sad that McCain sunk so low in his negative campaigning, but he gave a gracious and moving concession speech. The national political scene being what it is, he will find his way back into the good graces of the Senate and the national media (unlike “Joe the Turncoat” Lieberman, perhaps–a two-time loser of an “ally” that I predict no presidential candidate from either party will want in the future).

All in all, thank God it’s over. Now Obama’s real work begins, and Iowa can start gearing up for visits by possible 2012 candidates. With any luck, PUMAs, Obama Girl, and Joe the Plumber will fade away. Regardless, the GOP will be back, even if we (and they) don’t yet know when or in what form.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Media & GOP embrace socialism; Aerosmith offers emergency diet plan

Posted by James McPherson on September 21, 2008

Journalists now are lambasting the government for not warning us about the onrushing economic train. Aside from the fact that some economists and others have been trying to warn us, of course, the bigger problem is that the news media themselves just didn’t care enough about the issue.

Yet again the press has failed as miserably as the government, just as it did with the Iraq War. After all, charging bulls and bears are oh-so-boring compared to pigs with lipstick. Why attack complicated problems, when your audience is more entertained by political attack ads? Besides, in the words of Barbie and journalists everywhere, math is hard.

So now we have a nation in which “socialism” is bad if that government intervention would provide health care to all Americans, who live in a nation that despite its wealth is ranked just 37th in the world for quality of health care. Yet at the same time, “socialism” that bails out rich people who do stupid things with our money is good.

It almost makes you long for the stock market crash of 1929, when at least some bad investors supposedly had the moral fortitude to throw themselves off of buildings rather than begging for a handout. How many of these folks do you suppose are among the crowd that regularly criticize the poor for their own poverty because of “bad choices”?

The difference, of course, is that the poor–and their children–will pay disproportionately for their choices, aided in large part by the taxpaying largess of the dwindling middle class. Stupid bankers, who could get rich off of hair-brained schemes that went well, will now be bailed out by that same middle class since those schemes have gone awry. And neither Congress nor most of the media likely will demand reasonable concessions such as those described by former labor secretary Robert Reich, in return for the blank check we’ll all be backing.

It might be funny if it weren’t so disgusting. Now the nation is in the biggest economic trouble it has been in at least since the Great Depression (we may still fall much further), thanks to the actions of the current administration–and, to be fair, the three previous administrations. After all, despite his reputation as our “first black president” I’ve long called Bill Clinton our most successful recent Republican president, and though his economy was much stronger, he shares much of the blame for the deregulatory nightmare that allowed the current crisis.

I find it appalling and amazing that anyone wants to continue the policies of the current administration–policies supported strongly in most regards by John McCain, who tonight on “60 Minutes” said deregulation had probably helped the economy. But in truth it probably doesn’t matter a great deal whom we elect as the next president. Those current TV commercials that have news people saying this is “the most important election” of our lifetimes? They’re wrong. The last two were more important, and we managed to blow them both.

The Iraq War, the incredibly inept response of recent years to virtually every foreign and domestic crisis, and the massive bailout of Wall Street all mean that the next president’s hands will be tied in terms of the economy. And because things likely will get worse before they get better, I’d almost support McCain just so he might get a rightful share of the blame.

One huge problem with that, of course is that a McCain victory would also mean that he–or Sarah Palin, after McCain drops dead upon finally realizing the magnitude of the problems he faces–likely would end up nominating a couple of Supreme Court justices. Then we’d likely be in deeper trouble for a couple of generations, instead of “only” the decade or two that may be ahead of us (others such as my ecologist–yes, ecologist, not economist–brother, who long ago predicted the current crisis, anticipate an even an even more dire future, of course).

One bit of good news for rock music fans: I sense a comeback for Aerosmith’s 1993 song, “Eat the Rich”–even if a lack of electricity means it has to be an acoustical version. Perhaps that title might also be a survival plan for downsized journalists. Though one drawback to eating human flesh may be that it leads to insanity, many in journalism and government would seem to have little to lose in that regard.

NEXT DAY UPDATE: Not surprisingly, the Bush administration is trying to turn the bailout into yet another executive branch power grab. Also not surprisingly, most of the media are largely ignoring that attempt. One hope, however: Faced with the prospects of a Barack Obama presidency, some conservatives may help contain the proposal.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Presidential & VP debates: protecting Palin

Posted by James McPherson on September 20, 2008

Now if they could just figure out a way to let her use a teleprompter for the vice presidential “debate,” Sarah Palin could keep repeating the verbatim and often false statements she keeps regurgitating on the campaign trail. Note this quote about why the questions will be much more limited for the VP debate than for the three presidential debates:

McCain advisers said they were only somewhat concerned about Ms. Palin’s debating skills compared with those of Mr. Biden, who has served six terms in the Senate, or about his chances of tripping her up. Instead, they say, they wanted Ms. Palin to have opportunities to present Mr. McCain’s positions, rather than spending time talking about her experience or playing defense.

“To have opportunities to present Mr. McCain’s positions”? Isn’t that what his three debates and millions of dollars worth of campaign ads are for? Oh, yeah–the ads are for smearing Barack Obama and misrepresenting his positions, not for presenting McCain’s. Of course the real reason for the limitation is so the GOP can continue to protect their “pretty little lady” nominee.

One other drawback for Palin. She’ll actually have to learn McCain’s positions, many of which are in opposition to her own (arctic drilling, global warming and perhaps sex education). Of course, many of them also in opposition to what McCain’s positions were a few months, weeks or–lately, as the economic crisis shows–even days earlier.

Posted in Journalism, Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The Palin/McCain administration: Put whom or what first?

Posted by James McPherson on September 18, 2008

In a discussion about political symbols, students in my media criticism class last spring liked Barack Obama’s logos and signs much better than John McCain’s. My students are more politically conservative than the nation’s as a whole, so I think they were fairly objective in their analysis.

Though I thought Obama’s logo looked too much like one for a natural food co-op, the students thought it well represented his “change” motif. McCain’s logo seemed stodgy to them; they criticized it as looking like a real estate ad. For that reason I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when the words “Country First” began to appear on the signs–I keep envisioning a suburban ranchette.

I also would argue that the campaign’s seemingly desparate attempts to smear Obama through negative ads suggest something other than “country first.” But now it seems that Sarah Palin has forgotten even whose names is first on the signs (see video below).

Perhaps that confusion is understandable. The media and Republican supporters alike have been treating Palin as if she were at the top of the ticket. Some of those supporters have been sticking around at rallies just long enough to hear Palin speak, then leaving while McCain does his best not to numb the crowd.

Posted in Education, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

GOP view of Palin: pit bull or pretty little lady?

Posted by James McPherson on September 10, 2008

Barack Obama did the right thing today in pointing out the ludicrousness of the McCain campaign’s latest charges of sexisim. Of course that didn’t stop John McCain’s smear merchants from immediately launching another negative ad–complete with badly out-of-context quotes from Obama and CBS anchor Katie Couric (funny how conservatives like the “liberal media” when the message is correct, or can be twisted to appear so). The ad can be seen below. (Note: CBS insisted that the ad be removed from YouTube the same day; see below for details.)

The charges, as I noted yesterday, are shameful and disgusting. Interestingly, they’re also more insulting to Palin than Obama’s comments were, demonstrating the problem conservatives often have in dealing with women. They can’t even decide if their own vice presidential candidate is a “pit bull” ready for prime-time politics, or a “pretty little lady” beauty queen who needs to be protected as if she were some Victorian-era teen-age wife.

The subtleties of most real women, who fall between the conservative archtypes wrapped in leather and lace, escape these hapless campaigners–somethng even PUMAs are bound to realize. Between that GOP cluelessness and the fact that people will eventually remember that John McCain heads the ticket, I suspect the positive post-convention GOP numbers will soon start to decrease.

Those numbers continue to mislead, anyway. National polls may show a slight edge for McCain, but every electoral map I’ve seen–whether produced by Democrats, Republicans or neutral parties–still shows Obama with the advantage. Unless some unforeseen dramatic event occurs–and especially if the McCain campaign continues to rely on negativity, and if even conservatives can’t figure out what kind of woman Palin is–I have no problem sticking with my pre-convention prediction that Obama will win handily in November.

Same day update: That didn’t take long. CBS insisted that the ad be taken off YouTube because it is misleading. The ad still can be seen at the McCain Web site, where they aren’t such sticklers for details such as truth and fact. McCain has apparently found that he loves to wallow in the muck, just like a certain farm animal.

Same day update #2: Some conservative writers agree that the GOP “lipstick” attacks are stupid. See pieces by Kathryn Lynn Lopez and Roger Kimball.

Posted in Journalism, Media literacy, Politics, Video, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »